TV

The Unexpected Political Bite Of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

Tina Fey's new show bears her signature comedic touches -- but this time, it’s motivated.

The last thing you’d expect the new comedy series from Tina Fey to be is incisive — but that’s just what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt seems to be.

While 30 Rock tackled its fair share of contemporary issues, it did so somewhat half-heartedly. Head writer Liz Lemon’s journey through prejudice in the world of show business came with a sugar-coated gleam, a discussion capped by the impermanence of the sitcom plot and a savvy smirk from Alec Baldwin. The trials and tribulations of the show’s neurotic cast of characters were never taken seriously, none less so than the misunderstood Tracy Jordan and his horrific upbringing on the streets of New York. To its credit, that unwillingness to get bogged down in discussion at the cost of a gag is what made the show such an endearingly simple pleasure. The series was earnest in its intentions for comedy first and foremost, and totally in love with each of its characters. 30 Rock touched on Fey’s passion for political discourse, but was entirely the wrong medium in which to explore it.

The same sidestepping can be seen in the few female-centric comedies that followed. Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl felt like a fresh addition to mainstream television, and the quirky young woman with a can-do attitude eventually clicked with what turned out to be a pretty faithful audience. That familiar whimsical tone barred the show from dipping its beak into contemporary issues, instead opting for Friends-style plots (there’s even a touch football episode!). Like the leader of an apocalyptic cult, the writers play it completely safe, steering their host of affable characters away from lasting harm and danger, away from the harsh light of modern reality.

That’s not to say Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a groundbreaking comedy. Its synopsis actually reads pretty similarly to New Girl: a young woman with a dark past looks to put the scattered pieces of her life back in place. For New Girl’s Jess, the backstory involves an explosive break-up that sees her living in an apartment with three witty dudes. Kimmy’s backstory, on the other hand, takes place in Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s doomsday cult, Savior Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary-Pocalypse, through which she’s spent the last 15 years of her life imprisoned in an underground bunker in Indiana.

But while Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt bears Fey’s signature comedic touches, this time, it’s motivated. She and fellow showrunner Robert Carlock are pointing that sharp wit and affable optimism right at race and gender issues in America.

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“Step right up and see the ‘mole woman’, she made a pet cat out of dryer lint and a Gerschner’s bag!”

The show picks up Kimmy’s story as she’s liberated from her underground prison by a SWAT team. She and her fellow captives, instantly caught in a flurry of media attention, are shipped off to New York for an exclusive interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show. After the show, her “sisters” take the safe route and head back to Indiana, but Kimmy, inspired by the modernities around her, decides to start afresh in NYC.

She shares this objective with her new roommate, the struggling gay, black actor Titus Andromedon (not his real name), and her boss, local socialite Jacqueline Voorhees (not quite her real name). As the show makes clear, naiveté isn’t the biggest obstacle for Unbreakable’s quirky characters; it’s the series of roadblocks our culture has set up for women and minorities who are taking their stories into their own hands. Even in the cutesy, optimistic world of Kimmy Schmidt, putting the past behind you isn’t as simple as changing your name. “If you need to get anywhere,” as Jacqueline says at one point, “you need to be blonde and white.”

Each episode in the series revolves around Kimmy’s attempts at living a normal life. Everything in the modern world is new to her, from drinking fountains to smartphones. During these adventures, writers drip feed us revelations from each of the characters’ pasts, via random flashbacks. All of the characters on the show are lying to themselves in one way or another; whether it’s in Titus’ acceptance of a sub-par acting career, Jacqueline Voorhees’ refusal to accept her family history, or Kimmy’s unwillingness to reveal the fact that she’s spent the last decade underground, each is hiding a past in the hope of a different future.

For Kimmy, the flashbacks are often used to showcase her determination, grit and, most importantly, intelligence in the face of abject adversity. Her cult experience has forged in her an unbreakable tenacity and ambition, qualities that soon benefit the characters around her. The flashbacks, though hysterical, are actually imbued with a daunting sadness. While a quick cut to Kimmy twisting a mystery crank with a crazed determination gets a laugh, it also provides a depressing insight into the toll the cult has taken on her. Though the world around her is completely surreal, Kimmy’s time in the bunker feels more than real and that’s due, in no small part, to Ellie Kemper and her incredible performance.

The biggest distinction Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt boasts on the sitcom market is its story. Unlike New Girl or 30 Rock, the show is entirely motivated, employing comedy and wit in service of one narrative arc. Kimmy is explicitly the precocious Babysitter’s Club type: observant, shrewd and unwavering in her pursuit of truth and justice. It’s hard not to get caught up in her escapades, especially when they throw out so many instantly quotable lines. Most of them are from Kimmy herself, anachronistic jokes — like spluttering “Hash Brown No Filter” after taking a selfie — that are among the best out there.

More than empowering its quirky, downtrodden characters, the show takes a shot at the structures in place that led to their oppression in the first place — and for each of them, you have an array of choice quotes to sample. Titus’ appraisal of the appeal of the female victim stereotype in the news, for example:

“It’s not my fault. People love hearing terrible details of news tragedies. One, it’s titillating like a horror movie. Two, it makes them feel like a good person because they care about a stranger. Three, it makes people feel safe that it did not happen to them.”

Or his experience of being treated with more civility when dressed as a werewolf:

“I’m going to live as a werewolf, it’s so much better than being an African-American man!” 

Or Kimmy’s quip at her male spin class trainer:

“Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Replacing one stupid male authority figure with another, like Days of Our Lives replaces Roman Bradys.”

Brace yourself for a new wave of memes.

Of course, as 30 Rock has proved in the past, irreverent comedy and social commentary don’t often meld together comfortably. The perfect middle ground is a relatable character whose identity isn’t undermined by a hamfisted attempt to engage with an issue. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and with a host of archetypal characters who often lean on the stereotypical, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t always pull it off. Take, for instance, the revelation that the white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jacqueline Voorhees is, in fact, Native American. It’s a left-of-field admission that, while not exactly played entirely for laughs, comes off as more than a little insensitive. Especially when you consider the fact that Jacqueline’s arc ends with her tearing a Native American mascot outfit from a high schooler, then proceeding to howl victoriously at the sky like a wolf. This is a role played by white woman, Jane Krakowski, just to be clear.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, though politically-minded and incisive, isn’t your perfectly constructed empowerment narrative. The show is a lot like Kimmy herself: she’s got a lot on her mind and the energy to affect a lot of change, but her good intentions sometimes get lost in the hysterical humour of her supporting characters. And for a Netflix comedy series, that’s totally okay. In fact, these are characters so endearingly optimistic, so full of life, they infuse the discussion of empowerment and equality with an energy that’s sure to inspire even the most hardened cynic.

Female heroes on television are few and far between — hell, three-dimensional female characters are few and far between — but the unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can count herself among the most valuable of them.

Season one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will be available on Netflix when it launches in Australia on March 24. It is currently on Netflix US.

Sean is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, who has written for FilmInk and Beat magazines. He tweets irregularly from @ssebast90